#RPGaDAY 28: Scariest Game You’ve Played

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

The scariest role-playing game I ever partook in was not scary due to the adventure or other prepared material. Rather, it was the use of lights, music and sound effects that got me during the adventure’s climax. The GM did an excellent job of using rhythm and dissonance to get the heart pounding and me feeling off-kilter.

Once was enough for that sort of thing.

#RPGaDAY 4: Most Recent RPG Purchase

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

My role-playing purchases have dwindled precipitously in the past few years. I recognized that I was buying far more books than I had energy even to read, let alone put to use in role-playing campaigns. Additionally, I noticed I was buying books covering basically the same topics and rules niches: mechanically light, historical or modern fantasy, etc. How many times did I need to buy a book telling me how to run a game about wizards and vampires in a variation of our world? So I shifted from “that sounds interesting, I’ll buy it” to watching a few particular writers’ output for items of note. So up until now, the last role-playing purchase I made was probably nearly two years ago, when Night’s Black Agents came out.

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.Bearing that in mind, how surprising is it that my most recent acquisition was the recently released standalone edition of Kenneth Hite’s The Madness Dossier? It’s an analogue of the real world, in which the survivors of a temporal cataclysm try to wrest history as we know back to the way they know it, where humanity is ground under the heel of godlike beings who control the very means of thought and perception with hard-coded neurolinguistic programming, a la Snow Crash. So naturally humanity fights back, using the enemy’s own weapons against them, while searching for more information about the lost history and how to ensure it stays lost.

Madness Dossier started out as a mini-setting in the third edition of GURPS Horror, with a handful of pages of text, some lightly sketched antagonists and plot seeds. I dug it a lot — albeit knowing all the time I’d never run it as dark as it was written. Instead, I seized on the idea of crossing the setting with GURPS Cabal. The reality quake and slumbering deities of History B made their way into the Broken Spokes campaign I wrote up notes for, where the Annunaku of Madness Dossier become the fallen archangels of the First Creation, and the reality quake took the form of the biblical deluge that flushed them out of the cosmos.

The campaign frame never really took off, even as one-shot scenarios, in part because I never felt inventive enough to expand Madness Dossier or Cabal sufficiently to run a game. Now the expanded edition has far more content about what neurolinguistic programming looks like mechanically, the antagonists that members of Project SANDMAN might encounter and what it is they do, to call back the old quandary about Mage: the Ascension. And because I can’t let life be simple, of course, I’m mentally making notes about how to port the setting over to Conspiracy X 2.0, to reach that trifecta of modern fantasy in a low crunch rules structure.

The Madness Dossier Opens

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.I think we can all agree that the arrival of The Madness Dossier revised and expanded is simultaneously bone-chilling in its cosmological implications and a joy for anyone who’s been hoping for this since it first appeared as a mini-setting in GURPS Horror for third edition.

Green Mountain Gamers’ Game ‘n Grill 2014

The 2011 Game 'n Grill, going down at the Upper Valley Grange in Norwich, Vermont.

Summer Game ‘n Grill 2014.

Yesterday, Green Mountain Gamers hosted their summer game day, complete with grill for flame-based food preparation. I got to play:

  1. Coconuts: a dexterity game of monkeys catapulting suspiciously squishy “coconuts” into baskets, which get built into pyramids. Lots of stealing baskets and angling to take coconuts out of commission.
  2. Sentinels of the Multiverse: on my fourth and fifth plays, I’m really starting to get this game. Enough that I led the second game, and spent some of today thinking it would be a great solo game for when I can’t find anyone else free to flop cards.
  3. Betrayal at House on the Hill: always a treat, especially with two scenarios I’ve never played before, one of which was traitor-less. I still feel like the winner was a traitor, though.
  4. Mansions of Madness: the previous time I thought I played this game might have been a dream. This time, we played The Yellow Sign scenario, which occasionally intersected with the fustercluck of investigators and cultists that clogged up the main hallway of said disturbed domicile for most of the game. The investigators won, though, so that was a change from my conception of this as a one-versus-many heavily tilted toward the one — which is, admittedly, in keeping with the Lovecraft themes.
  5. Bluff / Liar’s Dice: this version had a board with a track that made the rules of betting make a great deal more sense. Still not a game I’d suggest.

It was an ungodly gorgeous day outside, but we had a lot of fun hanging out at the Vergennes’ Congregational Church. The venue is very nice, the organizers had everything together — especially the lead, Chuck — and the snacks were better than ever. Green Mountain Gamers put on these free events, running off donations, and they’re always a great time. Congratulations to them for making them happen all year round.

 

Carnage Noir

Carnage Noir happened over the weekend. It was, in short, good. I ran my Ghostbusters adventure — more on that in a later post — played Igor in a Discworld game with a lisp deemed incomprehensible, hooted and hollered during the Cube of Death geek trivia game show in the theater, caught up with many friends I hadn’t seen in a while and generally had a very, very good time.

2012 was a little bittersweet for me. Carnage is leaving the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee to take up residence in Killington come November 2013. So all weekend, I had little “this is the last time” moments: the last breakfast at Gilman’s Diner, the last sprint through the hotel’s warren-like halls with its inexplicable nooks, zigs and zags, the last pick-up game in the lounge and many more. Conventions move from hotel to hotel all the time and I recognize there will be some new lounge in which to hang and play games, but Lake Morey will always be special to me.

The prospect of going to Carnage came completely out of the blue in 2005. Days beforehand, a friend asked, “Hey, do you want to go to this?” I had no idea what it was, but signed on. I’ve gone every year since, as a player, as a GM, as a staff member. Clearly I am stuck in deep with the Carnage culture and community.

And that’s where Carnage shines. It has an air of conviviality, the feeling of a far-flung clan of kindred souls — now flung as far as Arizona and British Columbia, thanks to Monk and Munk — gathering for three days out of which everyone’s going to wring what they love best. It’s not just about playing games. That’s the vehicle. What that vehicle transports is community, shared joy and a good time.

In my eight years at Carnage, I’ve watched lasting friendships form and children grow up. The kids playing in the pool a few years ago are now playing games and running them. The newest generation of Carnage GMs stepped up this year with Dungeons & Dragons and Clay-O-Rama. A couple of adults hovered nearby, but you know, they weren’t needed. Those young GMs knew exactly what they were doing. And that’s pretty awesome.

Here’s to Carnage on the Mountain at Killington next year. We’re going to help make it exceptional all over again.

Ye Liveliest Awfulness

Reading The Case of Charles Dexter Ward this weekend — probably a re-read, as it’s all very familiar to me — a question struck me: given that one of the founding principles of life in Lovecraft Country is that there were all sorts of unnatural doings afoot during America’s colonial period, particularly in the darkly wooded hills of New England — including the deeds of Keziah Mason, as related by The Dreams in the Witch House — why haven’t there been more role-playing opportunities set in that time period?

Certainely, there was Noth’g but ye liveliest Awfulness in that which H. rais’d upp from What he cou’d gather onlie a part of.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Maybe I’m not aware of the texts that do so or maybe it’s because one of Call of Cthulhu‘s key themes is the modern person’s realization the universe is vast, ultimately unknowable and uncaring, but given everything going on at the time that crept down through the years to plague the residents of 20th century Arkham and its neighbors, it seems like colonial America is a natural time and place for mythos-based action. Even in Charles Dexter Ward, there’s an archetypal coterie of community members who take it upon themselves to protect their local world from the depredations of an evil alchemist. That screamed “party of wildly disparate yet bound by a common interest player characters” to me.

I see there’s at least one Chaosium monograph on the topic, Colonial Terrors. Have you ever run a Cthulhoid campaign or one-shot in colonial America? How did it go?

The Thief of Olympus

Apropos of nothing save that I’ve liked this passage since I first read it in Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, thinking it encapsulated the promise of a literal renaissance of a proud fraternity languishing in senescence and at the time not many Mage: the Ascensionfans gave the potential of that revitalization much credit, consider this:

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.


The idols of today’s youth ride broomsticks or wield spells. They fight balrogs and cyborgs, learn witchcraft and microtechnology. The children themselves bear Tolkien and Linux for Dummies in the same bookbag; chat in cybertongues to distant friends; don virtual disguises to enter imaginary worlds where aliens and faeries are one and the same.

And when they mature, these brave children learn to think around corners. To fly on words and unlock puzzles, weave illusions and craft new colors. Mastering arcane codes and words of power, they’ll summon Umbrood that Great Solomon never knew existed.

And some of them even make that final leap: Awakening to our Reality.

How Hermetic.

How like that Trickster, to confound his enemies this way! For using Technocratic tools to undo Technocratic Order is a jest worthy of the Thief of Olympus. Mythic Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle; modern Hermes steals the “cattle” from the Technocratic god — using their own goads to do it!

Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, pg. 34, by Stephen Michael DiPesa and Phil Brucato

Some REALLY atypical RPG settings

A post over at Topless Robot listed some good “atypical” RPG settings. You know, like Paranoia, Toon, and . . . Traveller? Pendragon? Wait, those are supposed to be weird?

Weak sauce, gentlemen. Weak sauce.

Traveller is a bog-standard hard science fiction with the addition of FTL travel. Pendragon is about Arthurian Britain, one of the longest-lived settings of adventure in our whole freakin’ culture. You want some unusual RPG settings? How about . . .

1. Bunnies and Burrows

You’re rabbits. Not magic, super-powered rabbits, just rabbits going through their everyday lagomorph lives. One of the yummiest things in God’s creation, cursed to a life of frantic fucking HOPING that enough of your kids survive red-tailed hawks to continue your family line. My college gaming buddies and I had a running joke for RPG nights when time was running short: Bunnies and Burrows vs. Cthulhu in the Old West.
GM: Uh, OK, you see an elder god.
PCs (in chorus): We wiggle our widdle noses at it!
GM: OK, you’re dead. There’s no medicine to heal you. 2 pts. for your next character.

2. GURPS Fantasy 2: Mad Lands

What were they smoking? Steve Jackson Games marketed this as their next big fantasy line. You kinda have to applaud them for such a gutsy move, but this game is all edgy and weird and Burroughs-esque without being much fun. The Mad Lands are home to a band of primitives subject to the whims of mad, chaotic gods. “Lobsters hung from her ear lobes; her body was covered with armor made of live, writhing sea urchins.” That’s a DIRECT quote from a story in Roleplayer. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a line from The Naked Lunch.

3. Broncosaurus Rex

The U.S. Civil War continues hundreds of years in the future. With dinosaurs. The Confederacy freed their slaves ages ago, so there’s no worrying about petty morality when your character flies the Stars and Bars. From the back of a triceratops. On another planet.

4. Little Fears

Children face down monsters in the closet. SCARY ones. The kind who want to slice your parents up for Sunday dinner or lock kids down in Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement. The book is beautifully done and there’s actually a good, albeit inconsistent, game in here. Fair warning—only very mature roleplayers should play this game.

5. Over the Edge

An absurdist conspiracy game on a fictional Mediterranean island. There’s lots of corruption, violence, drug use, and gambling. The whole shebang’s run by Monique, an aging President-for-Life who used to bang Mussolini. The one time we played Over the Edge the players got obsessed with the pizza delivery drivers who could travel through time. Lots of fun, with light and adaptable rules.

6. GURPS Goblins

Greedy, despicable, disgusting characters in Georgian London. At least they have an excuse: they’re goblins. This is an RPG within a Hogarth cartoon where greed, lechery, and base ambition make for a darkly comic, one of a kind experience.

7. Singing Cowboys (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

RIghteous, root-beer drinking, God-fearing singing cowboys fighting zombies. I seriously have to wonder if anyone’s ever played this. I love All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a survival horror RPG with an elegant, versatile rules set that’s right in my sweet spot. But the Fistful o’ Zombies supplement was designed to integrate zombies with Western films, and someone noticed that a lot of old Westerns were low-budget flicks about singing cowboys. Even in-game the zombies are deliberately tacked on—the premise here is that a B-movie director is shoehorning monsters into his failing films, and the PCs are the clueless characters in the serials. The other settings in the book Fistful o’ Zombies are actually quite good; Singing Cowboys just comes off as pointless and odd.

8. Psychosis: Ship of Fools

PCs have to unravel multiple layers of reality with a tarot deck. I think the authors were going for an Illuminatus meets Dark City feel that doesn’t pan out. I never played this one, but I have read the book. You’ve gotta be a crackerjack writer to pull off a premise that ambitious and, well . . . that didn’t happen. It’s just overly twisty and boring, like talking to a hippie while the two of you are on different highs.

9. Human-Occupied Landfill (H.o.L.)

The grand champion of bizzarro roleplaying games.  The PCs live as prisoners on a giant landfill planet at the ass end of the galaxy. There’s bug-eyed aliens and orcs and toxic mutants and a sodomite biker gang. The whole damn book was handwritten for press. The game feels like being trapped in the gross-out drawings of an angry, disturbed, skilled 13-year-old.

The Rendlesham Incident

An artist’s depiction of the Rendlesham Forest Incident.

Balor of the Burning Eye is a Mad God of the WitchCraft universe that’s lived in the back of my mind for the last few years. It manifests in Malkuth as an enormous red eye, usually wreathed in flame, sometimes dripping blood. The original concept for Balor was a Mad God whose frequent incursions into Creation drove a cadre of Gifted to found the Brotherhood of Argus, dedicated to combating the Mad God and its minion’s efforts wherever they may be.

In this depiction of the Rendlesham Forest Incident, think of Balor as a manifesting ultraterrestrial. Balor has sent portions of its being to probe into the material world for many long aeons, for as long as there has been something on interest for it to probe. Long ago, Balor’s appearance was interpreted by locals as a relentless, burning eye. As time progressed, so did the interpretation of its appearance. These days, the ill-informed would call it a UFO, assuming it’s a vessel from another world piloted by beings of some form of flesh and blood.

But what they think is a ship is really still a four dimensional extrusion of an entity from a external space-time continuum that may not as few or as many dimensions as that. Balor’s appearance in Malkuth has no relation to however it may appear in its Creation of origin. It may not even realize how it seems to us, as the Mad God’s own perceptions are warped by the translation of four dimensional phenomena into its own sensory elements. The goals and motivations of such an ultraterrestrial may be even more opaque and unintelligible.

Consider the archetypal alien abduction encounter. An abduction victim recalls a sterile location, often white or some other neutral color. Small beings perform any manner of tests on their victim. In the ultraterrestrial hypothesis, these beings are from another dimension, rather than another world, maybe one coterminus with Earth as we know it — following the notion that it’s easier to step sideways into another world than cross interstellar gulfs. With the Mad Gods as ultraterrestrials of an extreme extra-cosmic order, maybe all those little beings are different expressions or manifestations of a larger being. Its natural state might be distributed across multiple organisms — as in Peter Watts’ short story companion to The Thing, the aptly-titled “The Things” — or it might be the translation to this Creation’s physics that cause a fracturing effect. In the latter case, an interesting twist would be different portions of the Mad God’s being working at odds with each other. Maybe one even founds the group that works against the Mad God’s ineffable goals.

In the case of Balor and the Brotherhood of Argus, the brotherhood may trace its founding to an encounter with the “true” Argus Panoptes, the watchman with one hundred eyes, which traces its existence back to the moment when the Balor entity first intruded on Malkuth-space. A portion of its being sheared off as the probing limb entered four dimensions, taking the appearance of a hundred-eyed giant. Lost and confused with no frame of reference, Argus associated the entity behind the now-truncated probing limb with danger and pain. Then it somehow pulled itself together sufficiently to use the overweening awe of local witnesses to sow the seeds that became the Brotherhood of Argus.

[Via Stochasticity.]